"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Displays of challenged, or banned, books generally provoke rather predictable responses: one group contentedly observes that somebody is speaking up against such filth, another group stares in bemused shock that somebody raised such a fuss about these titles, while a third – perhaps the largest of the three groups – simply takes no notice. Granted, there may be something rather counterproductive about trying to get a book banned – for the path by which a book finds its way onto a table graced with the defiant banner “Read Banned Books!” is by being challenged. And oftentimes it is such displays of banned books that can capture the attention of those who had not previously taken notice – even if their response is one of “Wait, really, they tried to ban Captain Underpants?”
Since 1982, Banned Books Week has been an annual event that raises awareness regarding attacks upon the freedom to read. It is a week that sees rebellious display tables popping up in many libraries and (some) bookstores, whilst people proudly don buttons, stickers, or t-shirts declaring: “I Read Banned Books!” The event reminds people that, in many communities, books still come under attack for a host of reasons – even if they could not imagine those books being challenged in their locality. And though many people do not make the jump from “I do not particularly care for this book” to “I want to ensure that all young people are protected from the content of this book” – Banned Books Week is a glum yearly testament to those who have the second response.
Banned Books Week meets the threat of censorship with a united front from those who care about the freedom to read – a front which turns attempts to hush up a book into a reason in and of itself to read that book. It seems quite evident that this is an event about books, and it is. After all “books” appears with alliterative punch in the name of the event – for, this is not “Censorship Awareness Week” or even “Freedom to Read Week.” And yet, to take a perhaps contrarian viewpoint – what if the focus upon the books is actually something of a distraction? What if the proud statement “Read Banned Books!” is a sleight of hand that hides the real magic behind ostentatious showmanship?
Or, to put an end to this string of questions: what if Banned Books Week is less about banned books than it is about the importance of libraries?
Immediately on the heels of the above question, it should be noted that Banned Books Week is not isolated to libraries. Furthermore, while librarians may appear prominent amongst the event’s advocates the week brings together a wide assortment of groups (from the ACLU to the CBLDF) committed to combating censorship. And yet, there is something about Banned Books Week that always seems to have a particular resonance with libraries. While a bookstore may put up a display for Banned Books Week (and many do so), there is something about the fight against censorship that gets to a library’s core in a way that the same cannot necessarily be said of a bookstore. One can love and appreciate bookstores and still recognize that they are primarily businesses with no obligation to ensure access to materials – but the primary business of a library is to ensure access to materials. A bookstore may bow to public financial pressure and remove a book deemed offensive from its shelves, but it is precisely when a book is deemed offensive that a library has a duty to keep the book on its shelves.
Libraries are a community resource – whether this community is defined quite broadly (a public library) more narrowly (a school library) or somewhat exclusively (an academic library). Yet regardless of the size of the community the library has an obligation to ensure that its shelves do not speak exclusively to the ideologies and biases of one patron. This is not to claim that libraries are somehow magically apolitical spaces that exist outside the fray, like the dust jacket that is separate from a text’s contents, nor is it to suggest that libraries should ignore the concerns of a community; however, where attempts are being made to ban a book – the library is the space which allows people to see what “all the fuss is about.” To encounter the book themselves, and formulate their own judgment – even if it is only to conclude that just because one personally disapproves of a book does not mean that this is a categorical imperative. While a bookstore may feel financially pressured (though controversy tends to sell quite decently) this should not be the type of concern that weighs upon a library. For a library is one of the few institutions with the societal clout to tell the censors “you are entitled to your reading taste, allow others the same freedom.” Or to meet the censorship furor with a calm declaration that: “clearly this book has people in our community talking, it is therefore essential that the library provide the community with access.”
When one peruses the list of books that have been challenged since 1982 – or when one thinks back to the many censored titles from the years before that – it can be shocking to see the number of books that are deemed “classics” amongst this odd assemblage. Yet Banned Books Week loses some of its heft if the focus is placed solely upon a particular book or two (“somebody challenged a Harry Potter book!?”) instead of upon the number of books challenged. Alas, one of the lessons from lists of challenged books is that one can never tell what aspects of a book are going to spark somebody’s ire. For even though the list of the “most challenged” books is peppered with well-known volumes – less prominent books with less devout followings also fall under the censor’s disapproving gaze. It is in this context that it not only matters to defend the book and books but to rally to the support of the groups and organizations that defend, provide access to, and celebrate books every day. Defending against censorship involves many individual battles – but a solid strategy is to cultivate a culture that celebrates keeping books and minds open.
For the sake of the freedom to read and in the name of intellectual curiosity it is heartening to see people declaring that they read banned books. But for the call to arms “Read Banned Books” to have any true value it must be twinned with an assurance that those who are interested in such books will have a way to gain access to them – even if (especially if) a title has only dreamed of the best seller’s list. Thus, while Banned Books Week keeps the focus on the books that are challenged it is worthwhile not to fetishize the individual banned book but to remember the institution that has the freedom to read crafted into its shelves. In the moment a fight may appear to be about a specific book – but the attempt to censor a book carries within it an implicit threat against every other book that could be deemed offensive.
The corrective is not simply to have an excellent awareness-raising event once a year, but to foreground the freedom to read consistently. And that is precisely what libraries do. September 21 to 27, 2014 is Banned Books Week – but for libraries this is more than just a weeklong ride on the bandwagon.
Read Banned Books – Support Your Library.